The Playground, an outdoor fitness and adventure centre near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, is one of the attractions in the village of Barrow, along with the Weeping Willow pub
“We have hundreds of people trying to beat it,’’ grins instructor Ryan. “But no one’s ever done it.”
He’s talking about the fastest recorded time for the Army-style assault course I’m about to unleash my 15-year-old son Freddie and his friend on – The Playground, an outdoor fitness and adventure centre near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
The gruelling 1,100-yard trial in the village of Barrow encompasses 30 obstacles and the quickest time it’s been completed in is five minutes, 18 secs. If anyone trounces that time, they’ll get a £100 reward. Freddie’s eyes light up at the possibility of beating his mate Archie, clinching a record AND bagging a few quid all at the same time.
But the task ahead is tough. The course was designed by owner Nick Smith, along with brother Phil. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Nick, a former RAF Regiment gunner and Ironman athlete, is the current record holder – and he certainly knows those obstacles back to front.
Ahead of opening in 2016, Nick and Phil dug out pictures of the ones they wanted – a wish list of toughness, if you like – and handed them to their engineer father, who prepared technical drawings and explained how to build them.
Challenges include a 15ft vertical net, a thigh-high muddy ditch, monkey bars, a 10ft wall, a rope climb and an 82ft-long net to scramble under. When Freddie and Archie arrive for a pay-and-play session, Nick and Ryan – nicknamed playmakers – lead them through each obstacle before setting them off on the crucial timed run.
Down slippery slopes they go, up and over barriers, in and out of tyres and through muddy water. They emerge exhausted to ring the end bell more or less at the same time… eight minutes or so later.
It’s not enough to seal them the cash but it’s a sterling first-time effort and very much deserving of a slap-up meal that evening at The Weeping Willow, a nearby pub.
We were staying there in one of their seven newly launched lodges, built in a pretty meadow directly behind (adult £21, child £13, theplaygrounduk.com, theweepingwillow.co.uk for lodge information).
My partner Tim had come along too and our lodge turned out to be perfect for the four of us – with a large main bedroom for us and a smaller one with bunk beds ideal for the boys.
A roomy bathroom with walk-in shower, an Illy coffee-pod machine, and bifold doors overlooking fields topped it off. Having the pub on the doorstep was another perk. Dating back to the 16th century, the pub cleverly mixes tradition with modern flair, with high-backed armchairs, beams and an inglenook fireplace alongside electric blue sofas and candy-pink upholstery.
A rear extension with floor-to-ceiling glass provided views over a well-kept garden. However it was the menu that really captivated. Starters of whipped feta with pumpkin, charred radicchio and blood orange dressing plus a locally made Scotch egg and sourdough tasted as good as they sounded.
For mains we tried out the kitchen’s speciality – food cooked over silver birch wood on a Mibrasa grill. The boys’ flat-iron steaks were perfect – medium-done, beautifully succulent with pink insides – while my grilled chicken, served with crispy Suffolk prosciutto, a poached egg and salad, was divine.
After a couple of desserts – the sourdough and orange treacle tart was heavenly – we were ready to slope off to our deep mattresses. The next day we went over to the National Trust’s Ickworth Estate in Bury to hire bikes. They have two well-signposted cycle routes – one was 5.6 miles long, the other half that distance.
We tried both and found ourselves peddling through woods and fields of sheep, stopping off along the way for a mooch around a walled garden and to sit alongside the River Linnet.
We hurtled down hills at thrilling speeds, then huffed our way back up on the other side. At times, we barely saw anyone else. It took us a world away from life’s stresses (bike hire £6 for two hours, nationaltrust.org.uk ).
To recover we visited Shuffle Board Game Café, a novel hangout in Bury. For a small hourly fee, you can delve into any of their 500-plus board games.
The staff there really know their stuff – between them they’ve played every one – and will make suggestions. Even better, they’ll teach you the rules so you can ditch the boring bit of reading instructions.
We tried a quick game called Kluster involving a rope and magnets and another called Spicy – like the card game Cheat but with three suits – wasabi, chilli and pepper.
But the unanimous favourite was Ticket To Ride, where the aim was to build train tracks between London tube stations. A cross between Risk and Monopoly, it was fun for all (from £3 child, from £5 adult,
Dispensing with our train geek personas we left Shuffle and soon found ourselves in the Future Room.
One of the thrilling games at The Evidence Room escape rooms, it involved us having to solve clues, break codes and generally think like we’ve never had to think before to get ourselves out of a space lab before a deadly contaminant was released.
A series of aliens, some pretty hardcore padlocks and a pair of rubber gloves all attempted to thwart our mission but escape we did – albeit with barely two minutes to spare. (£20pp, evidenceroom.co.uk ).
There is no shortage of things to do in the Bury area, making it ideal for an active family break.
To round off we drove to Thetford Forest, the UK’s largest manmade lowland forest. Nestled inside is High Lodge, its busy activity hub. There we had a go on the fun adventure golf course, which featured 18 holes with obstacles ranging from a narrow bridge to a loop the loop. (£5pp, forestryengland.uk ).
Next up was disc golf, where you spin frisbees into large nets on a golf-style course. Shrouded by ferns and towering trees, it involved skill, strength and, yes, a little bit of luck, if only to prevent you losing your disc or bouncing it off a trunk.
The boys came in below par and – cash reward or not – this corner of Suffolk suited us all to a tee too.